May is gifting us with some glorious sunshine right now so I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you the book I read for the Reading Challenge: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. This book was perfect for the focus of this month: Read a book about hope and growth. Feel free to remind yourself of the different themes for each month here. Harper Lee was an exceptional writer. Like many others, To Kill A Mockingbird was a book I read for GCSE and it has stayed with me ever since. I’ve had the privilege of teaching this too which provides another way of looking at things. I remember when this book came out and the hype and media attention around it. You are probably aware that it was initially promoted as a sequel to TKAM but it is now being seen as a first draft. Regardless, being older now, obviously, I wanted to see whether my opinions changed on the characters and themes being presented. It’s left me thinking I need to read TKAM again really! Let’s see how it goes!
What’s it all about?
Told through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, or “Scout” as we also know her, the novel opens with her arrival to her hometown Maycomb, Alabama from New York. This is her annual fortnight long visit to see her father Atticus her Uncle Jay and Aunt Alexandra, the latter replacing Calpurnia’s place following her retirement. We learn that Jem, her brother, died of a heart condition which also killed their mother. Jean Louise is met by her childhood sweetheart, Henry “Hank” Clinton who is working for her father.
“She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”
When returning from Finch’s Landing, Jean Louise and Henry are overtaken by a car full of black men, travelling at a frantic speed. This example of dangerous driving leads Hank to tell Jean Louise that many black people now are driving around without insurance and licences. As a result, this leads to Jean Louise reflecting upon this and dealing with the minor scandal that it causes in the community.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are introduced as sources of great controversy in the community. Whilst at home, Jean Louise finds a leaflet entitled “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers. Naturally outraged, Jean Louise decides to follow her father to a Citizens’ Council meeting. Here, Atticus introduces a man who delivers an incredible racist speech. Horrified from the balcony, Jean Louise listens, outraged. She’s unable to forgive her father for betraying her and flees the hall.
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
That night, Jean Louise dreams of Calpurnia, her family’s black maid and mother figure to her and Jem for most of their lives. Over breakfast with her father, Jean Louise learns that Calpurnia’s grandson killed a drunk pedestrian the previous night whilst speeding in his car. Atticus agrees to take the legal case to prevent the NAACP from getting involved. It is following this that Jean Louise decides to visit Calpurnia. Whilst retaining their manners, Calpurnia and her family are polite but cold. As a result, Jean Louise leaves utterly devastated.
Deep down this is eating away at Jean Louise. She has to know what her father was doing at that meeting. Uncle Jack tells her that that Atticus hasn’t become a racist but he is trying to slow down federal government interaction into state politics. Following this, Jean Louise receives a lengthy lecture about race, politics and the history of the South. His aim is to get her to reach a conclusion that she struggles to grasp.
Jean Louise then has a flashback to her teenage years and recalls an incident where Atticus plants the seed for an idea in Henry’s brain and left him to come to the right conclusion independently. Jean Louise exclaims that she doesn’t love Henry and won’t ever marry him. She’s incredibly vocal at her disgust at seeing him and her father at that council meeting. In reaction to this, Henry explains that sometimes people have to do things that they just don’t want to. This is a fact of life that we can all relate to!
“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”
Henry defends his case by saying that the reason he is part of the Citizens’ Council is because he wants to use his intelligence to make an impact and a difference on Maycomb, the hometown where he wants to make money and raise a family. Jean Louise screams that she could never live with a hypocrite, only to then notice her father standing behind her, smiling.
During a heated discussion with Jean Louise, Atticus argues that the blacks of the South are not ready for full civil rights and the Supreme Court’s decision was unconstitutional and irresponsible. Reluctantly, Jean Louise does agree that the South is not ready to be fully integrated, she believes that the court was pushed into a corner by the NAACP and had to act. Jean Louise is confused and still devastated by her father. He is behaving in a way that is contrasting to how she was brought up and what he has taught her growing up. She returns to the family home and furiously packs her things. Just as she was about to leave, her uncle comes home.
“The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.”
Angrily, she complains to him and he slaps her around the face. He wants her to consider what has happened over the last two days and how she has processed them. Slowly, slowly, she decides that she can stand them. It is bearable because she is absolutely her own person. As a youngster, she fastened her conscience to her father’s, assuming that her answers would be his answers. Atticus wanted to break her idols so she could reduce him to the status of human being – a very difficult lesson to learn and experience.
Jean Louise then goes back to the office and makes a date with Henry. She reflects that Maycomb has taught him things she had never known. She goes to apologise to her father, but he tells her of his pride for her. As a father, he wants her to stand up for what she thinks is right. Jean Louise didn’t want her world disturbed but she tried to crush the man who was trying to preserve it for her. Telling him that she loves him, she silently welcomes him to the human race. For the first time ever, she sees him as literally, just a man. Not an idol.
“You wouldn’t have listened to him. You couldn’t have listened. Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”
This book is exceptional in every sense of the word. I loved seeing an older Jean Louise and to watch the lessons she learns at her age. She is inevitably changed by the big city of New York but her lessons clearly are vital for her home background too. I do naturally want to call her Scout, but we must remember she is an adult here! It’s always jarring when reading about race because it’s naturally a difficult subject to discuss. However, it’s representation here is delicate. I said at the start that I think Harper Lee is an excellent writer! This didn’t disappoint but just remind yourself, this is not To Kill A Mockingbird. I found myself naturally trying to make links and connections which is very natural. I missed Jem, but the links Jean Louise made helped with this. Overall, a great book!
Big Love all xx